Business

The Syrian entrepreneurs starting new lives in Egypt

Sami Al Ahmad, Khatwa founder Image copyright Tinne Van Loon
Image caption Sami Al Ahmad founded Khatwa when he was just 20 years old

There are nearly half a million Syrian refugees living in Egypt but they aren't confined to camps. And thanks to the more flexible approach, many are spotting opportunities and creating new businesses.

It was back in the summer of 2012 when Syrian refugee Sami Al Ahmad got off an aeroplane in a strange land, not knowing where to go.

War had broken out in Syria, and the 20-year-old dentistry student was faced with the option of fleeing or joining the armed forces.

So he flew to Cairo. On arriving he called the only Syrian acquaintance he knew in the country.

"Come to 6 of October City," his friend said, in reference to a Cairo satellite town named after the start date of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. "There is a community of Syrians here."

Three years later, Mr Al Ahmad is running Khatwa, a prominent social business that has assisted nearly 20,000 Syrian students in accessing university education.

The firm, set up in 2013 with a small initial investment from his parents, is a consultancy and training centre for young people. It charges students $500 (£329) for processing their university registration, but offers free consultancy to assist foreigners from Syria, Iraq, and other Arab countries.

"When I arrived in Egypt, it was extremely difficult to continue my studies, so after I managed to register at university, I thought of helping others going through the same process," he says.

Last January, the start-up was awarded the third prize in an entrepreneurship competition for Syrian expats. The scheme - the US-based Jusoor Entrepreneurship Competition - also gave Khatwa $15,000 (£10,000) in funding.

Image copyright Tinne Van Loon
Image caption The area around Alaa Eddin street is known as Little Damascus

Once Mr Al Ahmad closes his office door, he heads towards the emblematic Alaa Eddin street, where two fellow businessmen are playing cards and smoking shisha in one of the cafés lined up along the pedestrian road.

Everything in the area has a Syrian flavour, from the music playing in the shops, to the street vendors selling spicy olives to passers-by.

Image copyright Tinne Van Loon
Image caption Rosto restaurant owner Hossam Mardini ran a food chain in Damacus

Known as "Little Damascus," it's located in Cairo's satellite town of 6 of October City, which houses some of the nearly 500,000 Syrian refugees who have found a sanctuary from war in Egypt, although 350,000 of them are not officially registered according to UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency.

Popular Cooks

A few metres away, the area's most celebrated restaurant Rosto is bustling with cooks as they slice its trademark roasted chicken, known as Mashwi, for hungry customers sitting outside.

Its owner, 36-year-old entrepreneur Hossam Mardini, had set up a five-store food chain with the same name in Damascus. But as fighting intensified in the streets, he was forced to sell the business and started again in Egypt using the proceeds.

Image copyright Tinne Van Loon
Image caption Ahmed Alfi says refugees "work incredibly hard" because they have no safety net

Initially, it was just Mr Mardini and seven of his Syrian friends who decided to join forces and build a source of income. Today, the entrepreneur runs four restaurants and employs 120 Egyptian and Syrian workers, whom he teaches the art of Syrian cooking. "Syrian restaurants are very successful among Egyptians because our cuisine is more varied," he says.

Every day, after finishing work, Mr Mardini, who is married with four children, speaks to his mother in Damascus. "She doesn't want to come to Egypt; older people generally want to die in the same place where they were born," he says.

Unlike countries such as Jordan, Egypt hasn't placed refugees in mass camps, and allows them access to public education and healthcare. However, after the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi and the arrival of a military-led government in 2013, xenophobia began to rise; local TV presenters claimed Syrians had supported the ousted president.

Traders by nature

But despite this hostile environment, Syria's entrepreneurs have succeeded in tapping into unexplored niches.

"Syrian people are by nature traders and merchants. They have always been on the crossroads, so they are very good at starting businesses," says Egyptian Ahmed Alfi, a venture capital investor and the founder of the Greek Campus, Cairo's booming hub for start-ups and tech companies located off the iconic Tahrir square.

And since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, some of the country's top businessmen have transferred their enterprises to Egypt, with investments estimated at between $400m and $500m.

"Egypt gets a different cross-section of the Syrian refugee population than Europe," Mr Alfi says. "Distance becomes a filtration process, as those coming here are not those crossing the border on foot, and usually have some capital," he adds.

Image copyright Tinne Van Loon
Image caption Omar Keshtari had grown a company with several branches across Syria before he fled to Egypt

As he walks through the Greek Campus, Omar Keshtari recalls the start-up he built in Syria. Having started it while studying at university in 2003, Mr Keshtari had established a vocational training company with branches in Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, and Beirut.

But in August 2012, a bomb destroyed one of his schools outside the city, and Mr Keshtari decided it was time to leave.

Image copyright Tinne Van Loon

"As an expert in IT management, I would have chosen to move to Dubai. But I had to think about my family; they wouldn't get a visa there," he says.

After living in a state of shock for the first two months, the 35-year-old entrepreneur decided to invest his savings in creating Networkers, a start-up that offers IT networking, training and consultancy services.

As his company continued to grow, Mr Keshtary settled down with his wife and his one-month-old child in Al Rehab, a city built by the private sector in Cairo's outskirts, where thousands of wealthier Syrian nationals live.

A competitive advantage

"Entrepreneurship is one of the major building blocks for the future of Egypt, as neither government nor big businesses will be able to absorb this population influx." Mr Alfi says. His start-up accelerator Flat6Labs invests in entrepreneurial ideas across the Middle East, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia.

"The competitive advantage of any refugee is their will to work incredibly hard because he has no safety net," he says. "And that's what investors look for in an entrepreneur. We can teach them anything, except for desire."

According to Egyptian law, Syrian citizens seeking to open businesses in the country must legally register as working foreigners, but the process has become increasingly difficult in the past two years.

Mr Al Ahmad had to go through the procedure four different times, but bureaucracy and legal obstacles did not dissuade him from trying again.

He says: "I wanted to create something that helps young Syrians see that we can do something.

"We are not too young to create our own businesses and help others," stresses the 23-year-old founder as he already plans his second venture.